Real Oldies Redux

My post on the demise of Real Oldies 1690 in Chicago is still generating traffic and comments, even though it’s nearly two weeks old and has dropped off the front page. (I even heard from my former colleague Len O’Kelly, who’d been doing overnights and production there–per the usual format-change ritual, the staff got practically no notice and had to vacate the building almost immediately.) And I’ve got enough left to say about the station’s end that it’s going to take two more posts to get it all in.

As is often the case with niche formats, Real Oldies 1690 inspired serious passion among its fans, some of whom have organized a campaign to save the station. I’m pleased to see that they recognize the essential futility of what they’re doing–because it is indeed futile. At the same time, I’m skeptical about the suggestion that Clear Channel’s decision to lease the frequency to WVON is racist–which is not supported by the Chicago Defender articles the campaign website links to. I can’t believe I’m going to defend a company that’s done more harm to the soul of American radio than any other single actor in the last 10 years, but here I go: Surely Clear Channel sees upside in developing a closer relationship with Chicago’s African-American community, but that’s essentially a business decision, a decision not much different than a grocery store opening a branch in a neighborhood that doesn’t have one. It’s got far more to do with demographics and opportunity than race. Like major corporations in other industries, Clear Channel lives for one thing only, and that’s to make money, and they believe there’s more money to be made by leasing the frequency to WVON than there is to continue the Real Oldies format.

This leaves aside the question of whether Real Oldies could have been profitable with better marketing and promotion, of course. One commenter observed that the station was clogged with advertisements for products and services aimed at a seemingly elderly audience. He/she wondered why there were no ads for the kinds of places he/she, a person in his/her 50s, regularly patronizes: “Target, restaurants, movies, travel, etc,” and hits the nail precisely by asking, “who was going around selling commercial air time for Real Oldies? A bunch of 25-year olds?” Probably. The age of the people selling the time shouldn’t matter–if you’re paid to sell the product, you should be able to sell the product. Also, ad agency people will tell you that demographic reports rule their decisions–but the fact is that often, station sales representatives and agencies simply don’t “get” certain formats, and as a result they steer clients to formats they do get. (This is a bigger problem than it used to be, because one set of sales reps may be marketing seven or eight stations today, whereas back in my day they would have marketed two at the most.) When I was in elevator-music radio in the late 80s, we had research showing our target demographics, 45-64 and 55-death, were among the leaders in disposable income in our market. But we lost agency buys for restaurants and discount stores to a Top 40 station whose audience was largely ages 12-24.

Another commenter gets at another issue that’s rarely discussed–the continuing devaluation of jocks. Clear Channel has been one of the leaders of this movement, taking advantage of automation and voice-tracking technology to slash personnel budgets, and other radio companies have followed suit. It’s spun to station managers thusly–“Even though you are located in West Overshoe, you too can have major-market talent on your station.” Except you will be giving up much of what makes radio attractive to a lot of listeners–the immediacy of a local guy sitting in a hometown studio.

Real Oldies 1690, too, was extensively voice-tracked from outside the Chicago market. The difference that makes up for the lack of immediacy was that many of the station’s jocks had major Chicago pedigrees, and as such were tapped into the city’s collective radio memory. You’d listen to them now because you listened to them then. They should have been as much a part of the station’s image as the core musical artists. Not living in Chicago, I don’t know whether the station ever promoted the return of Uncle Lar and Little Tommy, let alone the other guys, like Ron Brittain or Jerry G. Bishop, who’d be almost equally well-known to a significant number of longtime Chicago listeners. But I doubt it–because in Clear Channel’s world, jocks don’t matter all that much. They’re interchangeable parts.

Coming tomorrow: some thoughts about the music on Real Oldies 1690.

4 thoughts on “Real Oldies Redux

  1. I agree that a jock needs to be identifiable to its home station. Jocks seem like baseball players to me – no one is a local, they’re all interchangeable and going to the highest bidder (if a bidder is to be had).

    Here in the broad-Boston area, I can name three or four from when the jocks made a difference. Now, I can’t name one – they’ve all come from other markets, they aren’t branded to the city or they’re there to fill in time between commercials.

    I can’t even remember the last time that it was a big deal for a jock to make an appearance … anywhere.

    We need to bring back quality DJ’s if only to have a favorite station to listen to.

  2. Good points in your post. I do think it’s nonsense to racialize the WVON lease – you are so on-target about it being a business decision. As for the issue re demographics, I am firmly of the opinion that demographic research and opinion polls have done widespread damage to many elements of our society, including radio and television.

  3. I’m coming in late for this discussion. It is true that Clear Channel is more interested in the bottom line than in providing quality radio or serving the public interest. The demise of RealOldies is but one more example of how a large corporation can dictate to the public what it may–or may not–hear. What made me a fan of radio was the voices, as much as, if not more than, the music. RealOldies offered both and with a little promotion by Clear Channel, I believe the station would have been more than “marginally successful.” As late as July 2006, one month before the jocks were yanked, people were finding the station for the first time. Now that RealOldies is gone, there is no true alternative on Chicago radio. I’ve found the music on the Internet, but without the voices. And the interesting thing is that with Internet streaming, RealOldies found an international audience–and that was on the strength of those morning voices so devalued by Clear Channel.

  4. Anonymous

    Real oldies 1690 followed the format of 1530 WSAI in Cincinnati with the jocks who were on that station in the 60’s and it was also a Clear Channel station. That great format is back on the air in Cincinnati with most of the WSAI jocks at Oldies 1160 WDJO. I have picked up the station at night in N.Central IN but they are streaming on the internet and sound great

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